(HN, August 20, 2010) - The area of Pakistan now under water is equivalent to that of Switzerland, Belgium and Austria combined.
"I've never seen an emergency this large," said Daniel Toole, the UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia who has 20 years emergency experience. "In terms of the scope, the scale, the number of displaced...the situation is as grim as any I've seen and it is likely to get worse."
"There are amazing expanses of water as far as the eye can see."
The UN now estimates that there are 15.4 million people affected, and nearly 7.5 million very severely affected. UN agencies say some 3.5m people are at very serious risk of water borne diseases. Toole said that at a health unit in the Punjab he had visited, of the 950 patients about 80 percent had been diagnosed with diarrhea. "The situation for health, nutrition is quite severe."
UNICEF estimates about 5,000 schools are still occupied by displaced people and nearly the same number destroyed or partially damaged. The number of health centres damaged equal about 5,000.
More than 20 days after the floods hit, Toole, who spoke to journalists by phone from the affected area, did not mix words to underline how crucial it is for donors to release funds now. "It's too little and too slow for cash."
Toole said that the joint appeal the UN initially issued - when only 3.5 to 4.5 million people were affected - is now out of date. "We now have 5 times that many affected," he said. UNICEF initially appealed for $47 million people but now needs at least $141 million to deal with the numbers of people it is trying to assist. The children's agency now has only $8 million in cash and has mobilized $7 million of its own funds. Although UNICEF has $35 million in pledges, "we cannot pay with pledges, we cannot find cash from commitments to buy sanitation supplies, water supplies, medicines and nutritional supplies. The situation is very, very difficult."
UNICEF is now providing water to 1.5 million people, but only a fraction of what is needed. "We all need to scale up, we need a long term commitment. We urgently therefore need funding - and not pledges, but actual cash in the bank."
Toole said UNICEF prefers to purchase supplies like soap and buckets locally but the scope of the disaster makes that difficult. "The Pakistani economy is wounded seriously by the disaster and local suppliers cannot possibly keep up with the demand we have. We put an SOS to all of our offices in South Asia to source supplies."
With temperatures hovering around 35C - but with the heat index in places like Sukkur about 54C - and plenty of water, Toole said "the conditions are absolutely perfect for malaria, acute watery diarrhea and cholera."
All UN agencies predict the emergency will last for quite some time to come. Aside from the homeless situation and the large probability of disease, lack of food will be a problem.
Officials in Sindh Province said this year's rice crop is gone and that farmers will likely be unable to plant rice next year.
Yesterday US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced $60 million I'm fresh emergency aid funding - bringing to $150 million committed earlier. She said the waters are not expected to recede until mid-September.
And speaking before the UN General Assembly this morning, Pakistan's Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani said an astonishing one in ten Pakistanis are now destitute.
At the same session, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon compared the floods to "a slow-motion tsunami."
He added: "At least 160,000 square kilometers of land is under water. Fifteen to 20 million people need shelter, food and emergency care. That is more than the entire population hit by the (2004) Indian Ocean tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake, Cyclone Nargis, and the earthquake in Haiti - combined."
Pakistanis are not the only ones affected by the flod waters. With 1.7 million Afghan refugees, the country has one of the world's largest refugee populations. More than 1.5 million of these are in affected provinces, dozens of Afghan refugee villages have been damaged, and several are completely destroyed, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Click here to view an exclusive photo essay on the Pakistan flood emergency by photographer Asad Zaidi